Is a wandering mind an unhappy mind?

Is a wandering mind an unhappy mind?


Many of us spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds each year searching for a way to be happy. This could be through buying self help books, jetting off across the globe experiencing new places, or filling all our available hours with fun activities with friends. But what if the solution to being truly happy is something far simpler? Something that can be achieved anywhere, at any time, without spending a single pound?


Living In The Present

Many cultures and religions claim that the answer is in simply ‘living in the present’ and focusing our mind on whatever we are doing at the time. This way our bodies and minds are working together,  with no opportunities for worrying or ruminating. It sounds almost too simple. And yet, how many times have you gone for a walk or jumped in the shower, only to find that two minutes later you are lost deep in your thoughts and essentially running on autopilot?


To test this hypothesis, recent research from Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and
Daniel Gilbert aimed to answer the question of whether, when it comes to everyday tasks that we
wouldn’t normally enjoy, a focused mind actually leads to a happy mind.


Our Minds Are Wandering Around Half The Time

The results of the research were quite shocking. Many of us regularly become lost in our thoughts, but the study showed the true extent of our mind wandering – around 50% of our waking hours! You’d think that we were mainly daydreaming during boring or otherwise unpleasant activities, such as washing the dishes or visiting the dentist for a checkup. But what is perhaps more surprising is that this isn’t the case. In fact, our minds are often elsewhere even during pleasurable activities such as watching a movie, listening to our favourite album or chatting with friends.


Our Minds Aren’t Taking Us To Happier Places

You’d be forgiven for thinking that most of our daydreaming involves imagining or thinking about pleasant situations, therefore making us feel happier than normal. But the research showed that is wasn’t the case. Of course thinking about positive situations like a holiday in the sun was shown to create more happiness than unpleasant ones like the aforementioned dentist trip, but this still left the participants feeling less happiness than those who were focusing their attention on the task at hand.


It Doesn’t Matter How You Fill Your Day

Another surprising find of the study is that the type of activities that we use to fill our days has less of an effect on our happiness than the focusing of our minds. Contrary to what many of us would expect, people who filled their days with social visits and partying with friends were no happier on average than those who stayed in and occupied themselves around the house. What mattered more was the amount of time that they spent focusing their thoughts on their actions and activities – whatever they may be and wherever they are carried out.


The Difficulty With Measuring Happiness

Day to day happiness is fleeting – our moods can change rapidly in response to any number of different stimuli. This makes it particularly difficult to objectively measure happiness levels using traditional psychological methods like questionnaires and interviews. Instead, happiness needs to be measured by capturing people’s feelings in the moment.


To overcome this problem, Killingsworth and Gilbert used something called experience sampling to collect their results. The premise behind experience sampling is to ask people what they are doing and how they are feeling at irregular periods throughout the day over an extended period of time. This way a form of portrait can gradually be constructed for each individual, and many of these portraits can be compared together to find patterns and links between certain activities (or thoughts) and general happiness levels.


Collecting The Data Through Iphones

In order for this type of research to be successful, the data had to be collected in a way that that is quick and convenient. As most people use smartphones, Killingsworth and Gilbert created an iPhone app to gather the responses of their 2,250 participants.


At random times throughout the day the app would display a notification asking the participant a few questions. They would be asked what they were doing, how happy they felt (from 1 to 100) and whether or not they were thinking about what they were doing. If their mind was elsewhere, they were also asked whether what they were thinking about was positive, negative or neutral.


As the answers to these questions were standardised, each participant’s data could be inputted in a database and larger conclusions about the group as a whole could be drawn easily without the need for subjective interpretation or bias.


Daydreaming – A Difficult Habit To Break?

The study suggests that the easiest way to be happier is to spend more time concentrating on what you are doing rather than letting your mind wander. Any habit is difficult to change, but scientific research suggests this may be a particularly hard pattern to break – MRI scanning has shown that many of our brains are activated in a way that is similar to mind wandering by default, even when we are instructed to think about nothing in particular.


Mindfulness And Meditation As A Solution

However, with the correct training even the most unruly minds can be tamed. Regular meditation, and in particular mindfulness, has been shown to reduce mind wandering and help individuals to become more present in the moment. It usually boils down to two similar practices – formal and informal meditation.


Formal meditation is as you would expect – sitting on a stool or cushion for 10-20 minutes at a time, focusing on the sensations of breathing and any other feelings within your body. When your mind wanders, as it will do often, you simply acknowledge where it has wandered to and gently bring it back around to the current moment. Informal meditation is simply an attempt to remain mindful and attentive during your everyday life. This could be while you travel to work, walk through the park or take a shower. The aim is to pay attention to what you are doing and what’s around you, no matter how dull it may be.


Do you often find yourself daydreaming? How happy do you consider yourself to be? Do you think these two things could be linked? And have you considered meditation as a way to overcome this mind-wandering and find true happiness?